The US-led military presence in Afghanistan will remain “significant” despite this year's drawdown, Washington's special envoy for the country said on Tuesday, as he predicted that outgoing president Hamid Karzai would continue to wield influence.
James Dobbins, the US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, told reporters in Tokyo that Washington was “still considering” the details of the withdrawal plan.
“I hope we will decide sometime in the next month or two on the exact size of (the remaining) contingent,” Dobbins told journalists in the Japanese capital, where he is attending talks on supporting Afghanistan.
“We and our allies, I think, will be prepared for a continuing advisory mission, much smaller numbers than we have there today but still significant in terms of its ability to continue to improve the quality of the Afghan security forces,” he said.
About 51 000 US-led NATO troops still deployed in Afghanistan are set to withdraw by December, ending a long and costly battle against the Taliban, who launched a fierce insurgency after being ousted from power in 2001.
The US is thought to be looking at a small number of US troops staying on in a training and counter-terrorism role, but is waiting on a long-delayed deal being struck with Kabul after Karzai raised a series of objections.
The White House says US President Barack Obama has so far made no decisions about how many American troops will remain behind to advise the still fledgling Afghan armed forces.
Dobbins refrained from predicting the results of the ongoing elections to pick a successor to Karzai, saying only: “It could be a close race.”
Afghanistan is due to announce the results of its first-round presidential elections on Wednesday, with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani set to go through to a run-off vote.
Dobbins said the elections are crucial for the country's survival in the post-Karzai era.
“The first hurdle is the elections,” he said. “So far so good, but can't take anything for granted.”
Whoever wins Afghanistan's election will lead the country into a new era after Karzai's 13 years in power and as US-led troops end their war against Taliban insurgents.
But despite his departure, Karzai will maintain political influence even after he steps down, Dobbins predicted.
“He will be an influential figure after the elections and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing,” the envoy said.
“I think that the new president will respect him,” he added. “We believe he views a peaceful transfer as a part of his legacy.” - Sapa-AFP